In mid-February China issued
an analysis of its own human rights record that was a classic study in
Communist follies. The same day the Chinese government issued the report
— which claimed among other things that Chinese citizens enjoy a level
of democracy and freedom unprecedented in world history — the Chinese
government sentenced pro-democracy activist Liu Shizu to six years in
jail for trying to set up branches of the outlawed China Democracy Party.
Apparently the constitutional guarantees of the right to free association
and free speech, which the human rights report extolled, have yet to be
communicated to China’s judiciary.
China today faces much the
same problem that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev faced. Freedom
works — open and democratic societies are flourishing. Dictatorships
also work to a large extent — North Korea is proof that if a government
is willing to take the necessary measures, dictatorships can survive even
the most sever privation.
But the middle road does not
work. Trying to make people half free inevitably leads to demands for
further freedom from the populace alongside demands for more curtailing
of freedom from elites (especially military elites). Gorbachev reached
a point where he had only two options — go forward with freedom or turn
back to hardline repression. He chose the former and the rest is history.
China’s leaders have put themselves on the same collision course.
China has seen its economy
take off with a loosening of official restrictions, but at the same time
its leaders have been shocked by the way individuals have used their newfound
freedom. One of the most disturbing trends has been a rise in religious
involvement by many Chinese, including significant numbers of government
The most publicized such movement
is the Falun Gong. Not quite a religion, Falun Gong combines mediation,
slow-motion exercises, and an eclectic set of views drawn from Buddhism,
Taoism and Falun Fong founder Li Hongzhi.
The group became very popular
in the late 1990s with even the Chinese government conceding it has at
least 2 million members and Falun Gong officials claiming up to 100 million
Whatever the merits of its
religious message, the Falun Gong certainly knows how to flex its muscle.
Complaining of harassment from the state and media, it organized a 10,000-person
protest in Tianamen Square in April of 1999 in which protesters surrounded
the main Communist Party headquarters. In July the Chinese government
responded by banning Falun Gong and beginning a round-up of its most important
members. According to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human
Rights and Democratic Movement in China, more than 5,000 Falun Gong members
have been sent to labor camps without trial and another 300 have been
sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years.
The week before China published
its report praising its human rights record, the government arrested 500
Falun Gong adherents in Beijing just prior to the start of the Lunar New
What certainly makes Chinese
leaders fearful is the emergence of any movement that is not completely
dependent on the Communist Party. Since the Communists came to power in
China they have paid special attention to religious institutions, generally
permitting such institutions provided they are subservient to the state.
This is what motivates much
of China’s interaction with Tibetan Buddhism for example. China suffered
an embarrassing loss in January when it was revealed that the 14-year-old
Karampa fled Tibet and made a harrowing 8 day trek to India. The Karampa
is the third most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that
their highest religious leaders are reincarnated and when one dies his
successor is identified by divination. The Chinese government has intervened
in this process and attempted to force Tibetans Buddhists to select leaders
it thinks it can groom into pro-Chinese religious figures, thereby keeping
Tibetan Buddhism under state control. So far, China has had little success
doing so in Tibet.
Its success in controlling
Roman Catholicism is also modest. In 1951 China forced the Catholic Church
under the state and only recognizes Christians who belong to denominations
approved by the state. Still, China has never been able to completely
get rid of a parallel independent structure maintained by Catholics who
continue to have allegiance to the Vatican.
In between suppressing the
Falun Gong and seeing the Karmapa slip through its fingers, the Chinese
government sent about 150 police to arrest Archbishop John Yang Shudao
in mid-February. Shudao has spent much of his life in and out of Chinese
prisons for, among other things, refusing to denounce the Pope and has
long been part of the independent Catholic Church in China that the government
has tried to destroy.
Unfortunately China is at odds
with its own policies. The openness and relaxation of state repression
that fueled its economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s is precisely what
has led to the explosion in religious expression in China. The government
will find it impossible to suppress the one without also suppressing the
China hails human rights leap forward. The BBC, February 17, 2000.
Communist China losing ground in battle with religion. The Associated
Press, January 17, 2000.
China jails Falun Gong member for 9 years. Reuters, February 14, 2000.
Arrest of bishop seen as latest signs of crackdown in China. The Associated
Press, February 15, 2000.
Report: 2,000 members of banned sect detained in past 5 days. The Associated
Press, February 10, 2000.
China combats ‘hostile forces’ wielding religion. The Associated Press,
January 11, 2000.
Another Chinese spiritual group ‘faces suppression’. The BBC, January
China’s airbrush aimed at history. The Christian Science Monitor, January
China moves to control Internet. The BBC, January 26, 2000.